Knights are one of the most popular parts of the Middle Ages. And they certainly are impressive. But how effective were medieval knights on the battlefield and what made them so effective?
Both questions will be answered in this article.
A Byzantine princess said about the effectiveness of a group of medieval knights that their charge could tear a hole into the city walls of Babylon. That effectiveness was a combination of armor, training, and a new tactic that was developed in the late 11th century. From then on knights used underarm-couched lances to charge in tight formations and full gallop (with up to 37mph/60kmh) into the enemy`s lines. Only few medieval infantry formations were able to withstand the brute force of such a charge.
Let`s find out more!
How effective were medieval mounted knights?
It is hard to grasp how effective a fully armored mounted knight actually was. Not only did his armor give him a massive edge over the majority of medieval soldiers who wore little to no armor. That lack of armor can be directly attributed to the composition of medieval armies, more on that here. And both the elevated position on the back of a horse as well as his lifelong training gave the knight another edge.
But before I dive deeper into the equipment and especially the tactics that made knights so effective I would first like to briefly write about how effective knights were.
The best way to gaze at how effective knights were is to look at a medieval source, more precisely something that a Byzantine princess said in regards to the charge of a group of mounted knights.
The Byzantine princess Anna Kommena was able to witness a group of mounted knights charging an enemy formation with under-arm couched lances in full gallop and closed ranks during the first crusade. According to her the force of that charge could have even ripped a hole into the city walls of Babylon!
Now that is obviously an exaggeration. But I think it paints a clear picture of how effective knights, especially in formations, were seen by their contemporaries. You can find out more about how tight these formations of knights were and when these formations would switch from a trot into a gallop before hitting the enemy in my article here.
By the way. The need to operate in close ranks for the best possible effect was the reason why tournaments were developed. You can find out more about that connection and medieval tournaments in general in my article here.
But when it comes to appraising the effectiveness of medieval knights then we don`t exclusively have to rely on the reports of Byzantine princesses.
Both the Christian-European successes during the first crusade as well as the norman conquests of England and Sicily, but also the Frankish successes in Western Europe can be attributed to the use of mounted knights.
Especially the Norman conquest of Sicily and Southern Italy was important for Western Europe since the contact with the Muslims brought much of the ancient knowledge that had been lost in Europe after the fall of the Western Roman Empire back to Europe. Here you can find out more about what knowledge (and which plants) the Muslim-Christian contacts in Sicily and Spain brought back to Western Europe.
But let`s now look at why medieval knights were so effective.
Why were mounted medieval knights so effective?
The first reasons for the effectiveness of medieval knights that immediately come to mind are the armor and the weapons. And yes, both points are true.
But since I already wrote articles about both points, you can find the article talking about the effectiveness of different types of medieval armor here while you can find out more about the effectiveness of swords here, I won`t go into any more detail. Here you can also find out more about how maces were used to overcome even plate armor.
So for now I would like to focus on the tactics that made medieval knights the effective and oftentimes battle-deciding force they were. And for that, I would like to refer to the Bayeux Tapestry that shows the Norman conquest of England.
The Bayeux Tapestry shows two tactics of mounted combat. The first one, the old one, consisted of mounted warriors who used their lances to thrust from the back of their mount. That thrust was either performed with an overarm or underarm grip. But both grips had the disadvantage that the force of the thrust was limited by the strength of the knight.
Because of that limitation, a new way to use the lance that is also shown in the Bayeux Tapestry was introduced during the late 11th century (basically the time during and before the first crusade and the Norman conquest of England).
In the late 11th century knights started operating in dense formations and to use underarm-couched lances in full-galop charges against hostile infantry or cavalry formations. The brute force of such a charge with underarm-couched lances could break almost any medieval infantry formation. The main advantage was that the force of the thrust was no longer limited by the muscle strength of the knight but instead the full power of the galloping horse was behind the lance.
Needless to say that such a charge was highly effective and most medieval infantry formations were unable to resist the brute force that the charge of these fully armored knights had. The reason for that can be found both in the effectiveness of the knights themselves but also in the fact that the majority of the men who made up a medieval army were not professional soldiers (or knights).
Here you can find my article with more information on that and the composition and organization of medieval armies.
But to be able to inflict the most damage possible the formation of knights needed to hit the enemy`s formation as ordered and united as possible. To archive that a lot of training was necessary which resulted in the creation of tournaments. Here you can find out more about the origins and rules of these tournaments and how they were totally different from jousting.
By the way, not only cavalry but also infantry operated in tightly packed formations. More on that and how medieval battles worked in general in my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Malte Prietzel: Krieg im Mittelalter (Darmstadt 2006).
Sabine Buttinger, Jan Keupp: Die Ritter (Stuttgart 2013).